The Dark Phantasmagoric Netherworld Beneath the Capitol

A congressional art competition is the last unsanitized corner of Congress, full of images that baffle and alarm.

Zipper Face By Harley Dallojacono
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Marin Cogan
Aug. 29, 2013, 11:24 a.m.

Shiny-haired, tan, and pretty, Har­ley Dal­lo­jac­ono, a seni­or at Patchogue-Med­ford High School on Long Is­land, seems like a nor­mal teen­ager — not the kind of girl who would pro­duce the most haunt­ing pho­to­graph hanging in the Cap­it­ol. For an art pro­ject this year, her teach­er told her the theme was hor­ror, and al­though Har­ley says she’s not at all in­to gore, “I was like, OK, I’ll go with that.” After brain­storm­ing with some of her class­mates, she used glue, makeup, and a bit of tis­sue to cre­ate “Zip­per Face,” a macabre im­age of a young man un­zip­ping his vis­age to re­veal the bloody form un­der­neath.

“I liked the re­ac­tion people in my class gave me,” Dal­lo­jac­ono says. “They were like, “˜That’s really scary’ and “˜That kinda freaks me out.’ “ Giv­en the re­sponse, her teach­er entered Dal­lo­jac­ono’s piece in the Con­gres­sion­al Art Com­pet­i­tion, an an­nu­al con­test that al­lows each House mem­ber to have one high school stu­dent artist’s work from his or her dis­trict hang in the Cap­it­ol for a year. Dal­lo­jac­ono hardly ex­pec­ted to win. When the judge star­ted talk­ing about the cool blues and the warm reds in her piece, she says, “I felt all the col­or in my face go. I was like, “˜Oh, my God, that’s me.’ I looked over at my teach­er. I was in total shock.”

Zip­per Face By Har­ley Dal­lo­jac­ono 

GAL­LERY: Fea­tured Art­work From the Con­gres­sion­al Art Com­pet­i­tion

Re­lated Gal­lery


  • Fea­tured Art­work From the Con­gres­sion­al Art Com­pet­i­tion

  • Dal­lo­jac­ono was one of thou­sands this year who entered the art con­test, which is sup­por­ted by the Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute, a non­profit whose mis­sion is to edu­cate the pub­lic about Con­gress and help mem­bers serve their con­stitu­ents. More than 650,000 stu­dents have com­peted since 1982. Each House mem­ber reaches out to high school art de­part­ments and asks loc­al artists to judge. Ad­di­tion­al prizes vary by dis­trict (at least one stu­dent this year won a $10,000 schol­ar­ship to art school), but all the win­ning stu­dents get two round-trip tick­ets to Wash­ing­ton to meet their mem­bers and see their art hanging in the Can­non tun­nel — a sterile, sub­ter­ranean chan­nel con­nect­ing the Can­non House Of­fice Build­ing to the Cap­it­ol.

    People rush­ing back and forth between build­ings all day have little else to look at, and what of­ten stands out, amid the more con­ven­tion­al pieces — a por­trait of an eagle, a draw­ing of a sol­dier hold­ing his daugh­ter, a paint­ing of manatees — are pieces that are deep­er, dark­er, and more com­plex than what you might ex­pect of a high school art com­pet­i­tion. They are thrill­ing, con­found­ing, un­set­tling. And they can be jar­ring for the cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive den­iz­ens of the Cap­it­ol, who of­ten live san­it­ized, poll-tested lives de­signed not to of­fend (or to of­fend only the op­pos­ing party). This may be the last fa­cet of con­gres­sion­al life not premised on ar­ti­fice. And it shows.


    Vis­it­ors in­spect­ing the work dur­ing the Au­gust re­cess seemed sur­prised at what they found. “A lot of them are “¦ odd,” said a wo­man with short-cropped hair who was push­ing an eld­erly re­l­at­ive in a wheel­chair as a staffer walked her through the hall­way.

    “A lot of them are dark ,” the aide replied. “Last year’s was really dark.”

    “I feel like I need to call some of them and ask if they’re OK.”

    A red-headed staffer in a short dress passed by mo­ments later with two con­stitu­ents in tow, point­ing out her dis­trict’s win­ning work. “Every time someone comes in for a tour, we have to show them this one. It’s so em­bar­rass­ing!”

    An­oth­er khaki-clad staffer told some tour­ists, “If I were a kid, I’d want to draw, like, a dog or something. Not, like, a light­bulb with an oc­topus com­ing out of it.”

    But there it is, an oc­topus in a light­bulb. Also, an ar­rest­ing por­trait of an old wo­man, her face blue, her red eyes glow­ing, called “What Do You See?” that evokes the face of Star Wars vil­lain Darth Si­di­ous. And a paint­ing of a sad clown, his red nose smudged. (“This world ain’t a waste­land it just taste that way some times,” the script says.) Many of the pieces de­pict ser­i­ous is­sues, such as home­less­ness. Oth­ers are sub­vers­ive.

    Jordan Adams, a purple-haired Iowa City seni­or from Demo­crat­ic Rep. Dave Loeb­sack’s dis­trict, cre­ated a series of ma­nip­u­lated pho­to­graphs that play on 1950s icon­o­graphy in ways that upend the era’s tra­di­tion­al val­ues. One from her series ad­apts an im­age of a moth­er serving din­ner to her chil­dren. Adams put the head of a mon­key on the moth­er and a gun in the hands of a child; a nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion is vis­ible through the win­dow. It is called “I Hope You’re Miser­able.” “I took something with each pic­ture, something that we be­lieve is the ideal of per­fect — an up­per-class neigh­bor­hood, a fam­ily pic­ture,” she ex­plains, “and I made them dif­fer­ent, be­cause they’re not per­fect; that’s not what they are.” Her win­ning piece, “Daddy Knows Best,” shows a fath­er read­ing to his chil­dren — ex­cept the chil­dren’s eyes have been scratched out, and the fath­er has the head of an ass. “That’s kind of self-ex­plan­at­ory,” she says.

    An­oth­er stu­dent artist, Madis­on Safer, won with a haunt­ing pho­to­graph of a young wo­man curled up in a laun­dry bas­ket turned side­ways on a train track. “It’s really about the struggles of be­ing a young wo­man; that’s what it meant to me. The feel­ings of isol­a­tion and solitude,” she says, de­scrib­ing the theme be­hind her win­ning work, “Dirty Laun­dry?” “I con­sider my­self to be a fem­in­ist, so deal­ing with the di­lemma of wo­men in so­ci­ety and also con­ser­va­tion of the land is also very im­port­ant to me,” says Safer, whose work rep­res­ents Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Ohio dis­trict.

    Taken to­geth­er, Amer­ica’s best teen­age artists ap­pear to be grap­pling with ser­i­ous sub­jects. “Misery at Mis­sion Mid­night,” “Seek­ing Hu­man Kind­ness,” and “Dream De­ferred“ (win­ners from Brad Sher­man’s dis­trict in Cali­for­nia, Lois Frankel’s in Flor­ida, and John Lewis’s in Geor­gia) are all em­path­ic de­pic­tions of people at the mar­gins of so­ci­ety. “It’s kind of sup­posed to con­vey the pain be­hind someone who’s liv­ing on the streets and doesn’t have any­where to go,” says Eliza­beth Bur­ton, a young Cali­for­nia artist who drew a man’s weathered face shrouded in a black hood­ie.

    And while many of the stu­dents say they didn’t have a polit­ic­al mes­sage in mind when they made their art, the pieces are ex­actly the kinds of im­ages voters might want their law­makers to think about as they walk to the House floor for votes. “I can only ask for the mes­sage that people would pay more at­ten­tion to the troubles people are go­ing through in this coun­try. I don’t feel con­fid­ent enough to talk about polit­ics, be­cause I don’t feel edu­cated enough,” says Con­ner O’Byrne, who pho­to­graphed a pan­hand­ler while vis­it­ing Bo­ston. “But from a per­son­al stand­point, I think it’s im­port­ant to tell each oth­er that. If law­makers would do that, it’d make the coun­try a bet­ter place.”


    It would be un­fair to char­ac­ter­ize the con­gres­sion­al audi­ence as wholly un­ap­pre­ci­at­ive of this work. Demo­crat­ic Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Frankel of Flor­ida both dabble in the arts them­selves — the former in wa­ter­col­or land­scapes, the lat­ter in ab­stract ac­ryl­ic paint­ings of faces — and both are thrilled to sup­port the young artists in their dis­trict with pieces in the Cap­it­ol. “It doesn’t rep­res­ent the dis­trict in terms of what I would put on a poster for tour­ism,” says Frankel, O’Byrne’s mem­ber. “But it does rep­res­ent hu­man­ity.” She con­tin­ued, “I think there’s sort of an irony, be­cause I don’t think when people think about Flor­ida and the dis­trict I rep­res­ent, which is the beaches ba­sic­ally, “¦ you wouldn’t think about [the] home­less. But the sad fact of the mat­ter is, they are here and they are all over this world.”

    Reps. Jared Huff­man, D-Cal­if., who marveled at the brush strokes of the win­ning clown por­trait from his dis­trict, and Sean Duffy, R-Wis., whose dis­trict’s win­ning piece, “Lost Puppy,” is a draw­ing of a teary-eyed little girl, also kv­elled over the com­pet­i­tion. “People don’t see Re­pub­lic­ans as sup­port­ing the arts, and that’s not who we are. I be­lieve it’s im­port­ant for kids in my com­munity, and for me as a rep­res­ent­at­ive, to show that I care about the arts. I sup­port the arts and every tool we have. I’m go­ing to let them know that I sup­port them,” Duffy says. “For them to have their piece of art hanging in the Cap­it­ol — it’s pretty cool.”

    He’s right. Most stu­dent artists I spoke with de­scribed how honored and thrilled they are to have their ef­forts cel­eb­rated in Con­gress. But these are teen­agers and artists — in­stinct­ively a little bit re­bel­li­ous. Not every­one was en­am­ored of the idea. “I was happy, but at the same time, for me, the idea of an art com­pet­i­tion is something that I find sort of de­struct­ive to­ward the real pur­pose of art,” says Kai Valen­cia, who won from Demo­crat­ic Rep. Chris Van Hol­len’s Mary­land dis­trict. “I don’t think we should be se­lect­ing a few people who have the abil­ity to de­term­ine what is a suc­cess­ful piece of art and what is not.” Valen­cia is in­to street artists such as Dan Witz and Greg Simkins, and to the un­trained eye, his win­ning por­trait brings to mind some of the paint­ings of George Condo, the Amer­ic­an con­tem­por­ary visu­al artist.

    “It’s cool to have a piece of art hanging in the Cap­it­ol,” he says, but adds: “There are places I’d rather have it hanging.” The most im­port­ant thing to him, after the pro­cess of cre­at­ing art, is shar­ing it with an audi­ence that can identi­fy with it. “I don’t want to speak for any­body, but it seems like when I was walk­ing through the Cap­it­ol, those paint­ings that were hanging aren’t really ap­pre­ci­ated, be­cause every­one is really caught up in polit­ics, and every­one is rush­ing every­where.” He paused. “I don’t know if that’s the best place to have an art show.”


    Welcome to National Journal!

    You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.